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“The Talk” Spoken to your daughter about teen sex? Check. But what about teen dating?

We know about the consequences of not talking to our daughters about sex. Daytime television and tabloid papers are rife with them. But what about the consequences of not talking to them about healthy relationships? Sure, we make rules—at what age they can date, for instance, and what type of dating activities are appropriate. Is that enough? Absolutely not.

We like to think that a young woman gradually works her way from Frog to Prince, each guy hopefully a little better than the one before. In most cases, alas, she never gets to the Prince. Relationships are complicated. Often, our daughters lack the information and skills to build a healthy relationship with a boyfriend.

I started to write Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends for my daughter after I saw her holding the hand of a Frog. I wanted her to understand that in a healthy relationship our important needs are met, that partners have heart-to-heart conversations, and that respect—self-respect, respect for others, and the expectation to be treated respectfully—is mutual.

We all have needs (to accept, to forgive, to feel important , to value ourselves and another, to expect those things in return). How can your daughter tell if she’s in a healthy relationship? To repeat: by assessing whether those needs are getting met. Here’s a heart-saving shortcut to tell her: “If you and your boyfriend keep having re-run arguments about the same need—say, your need to feel important—you’ve discovered an unmet need. Hurt feelings grow out of unmet needs. When your boyfriend doesn’t include your feelings and needs in his choices—canceling plans when something better comes up, for example—hurt feelings bubble up. Those feelings are a signal. This guy might be a frog.”

Here’s another way she can tell: Can she have a heart-to-heart with her guy, even when she’s negotiating to get her needs met? In a healthy relationship, both partners listen; each will meet the other’s need to be heard and understood. They’ll challenge one another, adjust their perspective if the other raises good points. Another heart-saving shortcut: “When your guy doesn’t listen, he can’t add to his self-knowledge or his understanding of you. This means he can’t learn and grow in your relationship. And you won’t be able to work through your feelings—you won’t get your needs met.”

In a healthy relationship, a guy will use respect to get his needs met. A big part of respecting others is asking for what you want, then knowing that it’s up to the other person to decide whether they want to meet your need. Here’s another heart-saving shortcut: “If your boyfriend asks you to do something, you get to decide if you want to do it. He may negotiate, but if he can’t get his way, he must respect your answer. If he uses controlling behaviour, making up rules—‘Pick up the phone when I call, no matter what’—or pressuring you to get his wants met, he’s not respecting you.”

Young women need specific skills to develop healthy relationships, says Dr. Joanne Davila in her research paper “Assessing romantic competence in adolescence: The Romantic Competence Interview.” I asked Davila, who teaches Psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, if the abilities she assesses in determining a girl’s romantic competence are the same as the skills a girl needs to build a healthy relationship. “I hope so!” she replied. “That’s our goal in developing the construct and doing our research.”

Davila determines whether girls are able “to think about relationships with a consideration of mutuality, in a thoughtful, insightful way that shows learning from experience.” In other words, seeing the other’s perspective, listening, taking turns talking, and adjusting one’s perspective when the other raises good points? “Exactly,” she said.

According to Davila, it’s about “linking the consequences of her choices to her experiences—knowing if I do this now, what’s going to happen in future, or what effect will it have on me or someone else? Being able to decide if she wants to do something based on what’s right for her. Even if all her friends are engaging in sexual activities, say, if she knows she’s not ready emotionally, she realizes, ‘That’s not good for me.’”

Most girls get sad if they fight with their boyfriend, says Davila, but to prevent that from turning into depression, girls need to do things to prevent themselves from getting stuck, things that will help them solve the problem and see their situation in a realistic, balanced way.

If we want our daughters to have the information and skills to build healthy relationships, we must not only talk to them about healthy relationship principles but also incorporate  those principles in our relationship with them.  It’s teaching by example. Only in this way can our daughters avoid the too-frequent negative consequences of dating, such as emotional trauma or a loss of self-esteem.

What happens when girls lack romantic competence? “When young women have troubles in their relationships,” says Davila, “they’re at greater risk for feeling anxious, depressed and developing concerns about their body image, as well as for repeating in later relationships the negative interaction patterns they’ve learned. Being involved in romantic relationships in adolescence is not a bad thing. The message is not to keep our adolescents from having these experiences. The message is to help our daughters be competent in relationships.”

Does your daughter know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors—between a supportive boyfriend and a controlling one, for example? Does she know how to tell if her boyfriend’s getting his needs met while still respecting her? Does she have the skills to deal with her boyfriend when he can’t get his way? Could she make a tough self-respect choice if it made her boyfriend unhappy or caused him to break up with her?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, your daughter needs to learn more about what makes for a healthy relationship. When girls know better, they do better—it’s that simple.

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